Saturday, February 24, 2007

Film Review #85: Close to Home
Directors: Dalia Hager & Vidi Bilu
Cast: Smadar Sayar, Naama Schendar, Irit Suki

Vidi Bilu, who is half of this film’s writing-directing team, says that the opening scene in Close to Home is her favorite. Given that she started her career as a still photographer before moving on to film editing and directing docs, one can see why. For that first long moment, the screen is split in two by what is essentially a photographer’s image, nearly without movement and sound. On the right hand side, an attractive, mature Palestinian woman’s face in extreme close-up – resentful, alert, controlled, her jaw set. Occupying the left-hand half of the screen, the curtain behind which she stands and looks out. Pulling back that curtain both sets the story in motion and reveals the other half of the interaction underway.

Arab women and their children entering the gates of Jerusalem must pass through this room, lined with small green-curtained booths like a department store’s fitting room. Inside these booths, young female Israeli soldiers dump their handbags, undo their packages and strip-search them. Here, the Palestinian woman submits stoically to Smadar (Smadar Sayar), an awkward, hesitant soldier who might be a daughter’s age. Her own eyes hooded with resentment, Smadar pays attention as her sergeant, Dubek (Irit Suki), teaches her the ropes. Nearby, another soldier named Dana, faced with stripping an elderly woman, suddenly protests that she cannot do this anymore. Dubek insists, “You have no choice. Now do your job.” Pandemonium: Dana opens the double doors, sweeps a flood of long-robed women through. In the tense restored order – Dana is quickly arrested – Mirit (Naama Schendar) breaks the silence first to assure the pacing commander, “I didn’t participate.”

Despite the scene’s brief eruption, what Bilu likes best here is how much detail and quiet can accomplish toward focusing attention. Close to Home is a well-made, unassuming film, better in retrospect than you first think with its sometimes flat, news-reely look. In their first feature film together, Bilu and Hager quickly establish the sense that we are watching something we haven’t seen on-screen before. This isn’t Private Benjamin. In fact, this study of Israel’s compulsory military service for women – two years starting at age 18 – is the first time Israeli cinema addresses a practice in place for over half a century. Bilu and Hager shot Close to Home in just three weeks in late 2004, after six years of requests for financing to the highly competitive Israel Film Fund. Life-long military bonding may be a norm for men, but Bilu says, “It is very rare in Israel for women to talk about what they did in the army. It’s men’s talk.”

Soon after their orientation in the green-curtained booths, Smadar and Mirit are patrolling a few blocks of Jerusalem near the city’s gates. Their job is to randomly check the papers of Palestinian men on the street and record the details. They must rely on these men to cooperate with their uniform’s power. They must avoid Dubek’s surprise check-ups on how well they too follow an array of stifling rules. Soon the traits each showed early on amplify until they are barely speaking. Mirit asks for a transfer – the officer gives her a long look when the meek girl voices fanciful hopes of commanding tanks – and Smadar’s shoplifting for thrills escalates.

One day Smadar walks angril away when Mirit insists she do her share of the work. She races back when a terrorist bomb explodes that knocks Mirit out. This sets them on a different course that will include a handsome stranger, separation when Mirit serves time for leaving her post to go dancing and a final incident in which the uniform’s authority is pitifully useless.

Except for one visit from a male officer who addresses the assembled all-woman company, Close to Home remains focused on the lives of women soldiers. This allows Hager and Bilu to explore aspects of Israeli women’s military experience with unusual clarity and detail.

Close to Home takes the friendship between Smadar and Mirit seriously as a genuine emotional attachment. They have several reversals as one gets hurt or annoyed and rebuffs the other – sometimes cruelly – before making up. They talk about that attachment, though not easily. Each experiments with what supporting, forgiving and missing the other means. It’s not that Smadar and Mirit have a romance – though American audiences might think that’s what’s coming, because friendship between young women rarely gets this space in our films.

Conventional wisdom that army service makes you a man means films generally frame these stories as coming-of-age tales. But the combined pressure, boredom and strictures that these young women endure instead bring out their immaturity. There are scenes of each young woman riding in the back seat of Mirit’s father’s car with him driving, reminding us they are daughters. In fact, the film's title comes from Israeli military slang for postings that allow troops to live at home with their families while serving. Mirit’s grand romance is a bit of bragging to impress Smadar. One day they round a corner on patrol and almost collide with Dubek torridly kissing a civilian in an alley. Both freeze wide-eyed until Dubek releases them, brazenly tossing her hair – a moment easily plucked from a high school corridor where neither student manages the aplomb of the grown-up teacher.

Finally Close to Home explores the apprenticeship in authority that compulsory military service is for an entire culture at a critical age – both for its young people and its nation. From the first crisis with Dana’s melt-down in the green-curtained search booths to the final scene, women soldiers repeat, “You have no choice.” Even the formerly rebellious Smadar tries mimicking that line late in the story. Part of this film’s punch is depicting how often that assertion is really a bluff – swaggering, tenuous, itself adolescent – while at the same time underlining that neither young woman would have stuck around on her own. This is a filmmaking team worth watching.

This review was written for Close to Home opened in limited theatrical release in New York City on February 16th. An IFC First Take Films release, Close to Home is also available via Cablevision video on demand.